I was inspired to read the epic tome that is Les Miserables when the film of the musical came out at the beginning of 2013. Being me, I always need to read the book of the film first, as I firmly believe that the characters on the page should have the right to show their true personalities before Hollywood/West end producers start to tarnish their characters and simplify their storylines to make them more marketable.
Little did I know about the scale of the challenge I had set myself. I hadn’t quite realised that I would need to get through 1000 pages before the day I went to see the movie, and I am still flabbergasted at how I managed it!
Contrary to popular belief, Les Mis is not set during the French Revolution, which happened in 1789. The majority of the book is set in 1832, during the June revolution in Paris. France had been through political turmoil, and seen 6 different types of government in the 43 years between the 1789 Revolution and the uprising in 1832. The various political struggles of this time resulted in various schools of thought about how France should be governed emerging.
Les Mis focuses on the feelings of disenchantment people, especially the young and less well-off, had with the reign of Louis-Philippe I. Louis-Philippe’s moderation and middle-way policies disappointed those hoping for more from the self-styled ‘citizen king’, who had deposed the ultra-conservative Charles X in the July Revolution.
It was the death and funeral of the liberal General Lemarque which proved the catalyst for the 1832 revolution. Lemarque had been a leading critic of Louis-Philippe’s regime, and had been very outspoken about protecting human rights and liberties, and providing for the poor. It is in this context that the students in Les Mis stage their uprising (although I really have no sympathy for them – I think that they come across as very idealistic, selfish and out of touch).
Les Mis is, at heart a social commentary, and a book about Good vs Evil, and how the two inevitably overlap sometimes. We are exposed to characters from different walks of life: some deplorable, some for whom we sympathise, some whom we even envy. I also firmly believe that choices, as well as circumstance, are at the heart of the story.
The character of Jean Valjean is the epitome of this Good vs Evil struggle. Initially caught in a cycle of crime – which starts with stealing a loaf of bread in 1795 – he is ultimately transformed as a person by love and compassion, triggered by a Bishop who lets Valjean go with all of his silver. I think the musical does the book one of its many injustices in romanticising Valjean, who gets opportunities to better himself in ways the poor people of Paris do not; they generally starve because they are too noble to resort to the thievery Valjean commits. I do not want to completely condemn him though. Valjean uses the Bishop’s kindness to make life better for others, perhaps best displayed by him saving Cosette from the Thernardiers.
Les Mis is populated by a multitude of fascinating characters, which we won’t go in to here for reasons of space. Notably, a lot of the characters (Eponine, the Thernardiers) are very different from those in the musical version. But what I really want to do is change people’s opinions of Javert, the antagonist of the novel.
Javert sees no blurring of the line of good and evil. You are either law abiding, or you are a criminal. You are honest, or you are not. Our instinct is to condemn him for his lack of compassion. In some ways Hugo portrays him as inhuman, but I think his character has much more depth than the simple antagonist. He is the product of what society and the justice system has created, simply doing his job as a policeman, which is to uphold the law. Throughout the novel he is clearly the character with the highest integrity and discipline, making the choice to change his fortune (he was born a gypsy in a jail) and work for the establishment he so badly wants to be worthy of.
In short, we must not condemn the man, but the justice system which forces him to turn a blind eye to those poor creatures who sit between the lines of good and evil, and right and wrong.
Hopefully I have inspired you to at least think about reading this epic tome. I would go as far as to say that the book changed my view of literature. I probably particularly enjoyed it because of the historical reference as well, but I could not help but fall in love with the story and the characters. Even though the reader is forced through some substantial digressions from the storyline (e.g. the geography and blue prints of the Paris sewer network), this quickly became one of my most satisfying reads, and I foresee it remaining in my top 5 books of all time.